Donald Trump’s first meeting with Vladimir Putin this month seemed to give the U.S. president everything he wanted. The two appeared to get along. There was a modest cease-fire deal on Syria. Moscow’s meddling in the U.S. election was raised, but both leaders were eager to move on.
Three weeks later, relations between the U.S. and Russia are at their lowest since the Cold War, with no clear path out.
Putin’s decision Friday to expel “hundreds” of personnel from the U.S. embassy and consulates in Russia signaled Moscow’s frustration at Trump’s inability to deliver on promises to improve ties six months into his administration, a failure underscored by congressional passage Thursday of new and tougher sanctions legislation that the President said Friday he intends to sign.
Despite the president’s efforts, a federal probe into the election interference is only accelerating and the Republican-led Congress, wary of both Putin and where that investigation may lead, crafted provisions in the new legislation that would restrict the president’s ability to lift sanctions.
Moscow’s latest move “suggests a period of much more intense and damaging conflict lies ahead,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert and director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “This is a dangerous moment.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.S. had until Sept. 1 to bring the number of diplomatic and technical personnel in Russia to 455, the same number it said Russia has in the U.S.
Soon after the expulsion was announced, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov cited the influence of “out-of-control Russophobes who are now setting the tone on Capitol Hill.”
“The anti-Russian juggernaut put into motion by the Obama administration not only hasn’t stopped, as Trump promised during his election campaign, but it’s gaining speed,” Leonid Slutsky, head of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said on Russian state television.
The U.S. reaction was more muted. The embassy in Moscow denounced the move but didn’t comment further. The State Department declined to comment, though an official who asked not to be identified said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, spoke Friday morning, without divulging details of the conversation.
The Russian move was one of several setbacks for Trump in a week in which the Senate failed to pass legislation repealing former President Barack Obama’s health-care plan, North Korea launched another intercontinental ballistic missile and the Pentagon appeared to push back on the president’s tweeted plan to bar transgender service members.
The erosion in ties also may make it more difficult for Trump to achieve foreign policy breakthroughs on key issues, including rallying international support against North Korea, pressuring Iran over its ballistic missile program and expanding cease-fire zones in Syria. Russia has a role to play in all three areas, leaving the U.S. with fewer options if the two nations are unable to reach an accord.
“This is a serious problem for U.S. national security interests linked to the wide range of issues on which Russians and Americans have to find ways to work together,” Rojansky said via email.
While Putin had faced pressure to move against the U.S. ever since the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two of the country’s compounds in late December in retaliation for the election meddling, the Russian president had held off. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, allegedly discussed the possibility of easing sanctions before the new administration even took office and was ousted for failing to disclose that to Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump continued to extol the benefits of working with Russia even as the federal probe into Russian interference — and into whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it — ground on.
With the inquiry, now led by special counsel Robert Mueller, touching key Trump aides including son-in-law Jared Kushner, the president has railed against the probe as “fake news” and a “phony Russian Witch Hunt.” At the same time, he’s said “President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling.”
Even though the U.S. Constitution and tradition give the president leeway on international affairs, Congress increasingly has sought to limit Trump’s ability to make unilateral decisions over Russia policy.
Late Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 98-2 for final passage of a House-approved bill that strengthens existing sanctions on Russia and gives Congress the power to block Trump from lifting them. While the White House had given mixed messages about whether Trump would sign the legislation, the overwhelming support for it meant lawmakers could have overridden a presidential veto.
"President Donald J. Trump read early drafts of the bill and negotiated regarding critical elements of it," the White House said in a statement released Friday. "He has now reviewed the final version and, based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it."
The congressional support for the sanctions measure, a rare show of bipartisanship in the fractured politics of Washington, showed how few Republicans are willing to defend Trump’s vision of better ties with Moscow in light of the election-year hacking, Russian aggression in Ukraine and the country’s ties to Iran.
“The message coming from Congress on a bipartisan basis is: These are hostile regimes and sanctions are warranted,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday, referring to the legislation targeting Russia, Iran and North Korea. “We want to make sure they’re tough sanctions, we want to make sure they’re durable sanctions.”